When Scientists, Lawyers and Journalists Go Viral
Credulity seems to be fundamental to human nature. We often see what we want to see and hear what we want to hear. This is especially true for anything that reinforces our grievances, promotes the power of our tribe, or aligns with our self interest. Skepticism may be a school of philosophy that dates back to the ancient Greeks but it can rarely restrain the passion of true believers.
The scientific method emerged as a rational antidote to human credulity. Slowly gaining stature over time, the practice of conducting controlled experiments that test falsifiable hypotheses led to an explosion of knowledge that created the modern world.
Yet credulity was never vanquished, simmering below the surface in all of us. Exploiting it used to be the stock-in-trade of small town quacks and swindlers preying on isolated pockets of ignorance. Not anymore. Driven largely by contingency-fee lawyers and hypercompetitive mass media, preying on credulity has become a global industry.
Few examples make a better case study than the decade old thimerosal-causes-autism scare that finally seems to be entering its closing chapter. Sparked by the flawed science of a British doctor named Andrew Wakefield the claim that the mercury-based preservative used in the measles, mumps, and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism managed to achieve peer-reviewed publication in the once respected journal The Lancet. A 1998 press conference by Dr. Wakefield in which he recommended that doctors stop giving MMR vaccines was lapped up by the media, igniting a firestorm.
Despite broad evidence then and since that these claims were unfounded, the inconvenient truth is that it is somewhere between difficult and impossible to use the scientific method to prove a negative. Constructing experiments to test the hypothesis that A can rarely, sometimes, or often cause B is a regular scientific undertaking. Science cannot be used to prove that A can never cause B because it would require an infinite number of experiments. Think about trying to prove that a rain dance never causes rain. Or, closer to home, how would you prove that cell phones can never cause brain tumors or that electronic throttle software can never cause runaway Toyotas?
Anti-thimerosal zealots found it easy to harness the anguish of many parents of autistic children and the professional advocacy groups they support. All it took was an internet driven media campaign coupled with a trip to the jackpot justice system. Tort lawyers now have 5,000 cases seeking damages pending in federal court. Lavish careers were build around asbestos litigation, why not thimerosal?
The medical establishment has vigorously defended itself, and despite media charges of cover-up reams of studies continue to demonstrate no causal linkage. Add the cost of redundant research to the ongoing litigation expenses, toss in the liability insurance that doubles the price of every vaccine, add the malpractice premiums paid by the doctors that administer them and you have a recipe for both driving companies out of the vaccine business and compounding the financial woes of our overstressed healthcare system.
The real damage, however, has been the alarming plunge in vaccination rates that has allowed once vanquished diseases to return with a vengeance. It's easy to forget that hundreds of millions of people once died from mumps and measles. If current trends continue those days could return. Now that the media has successfully alarmed and miseducated millions, do you think they will devote the same amount of ink to set the record straight? You are more likely to hear the words mea culpa from a tort lawyer.
The editors of The Lancet admitted their mistake after the research was repudiated by Dr. Wakefield's coauthors, though it took a decade to fully retract the article. Along the way the good doctor was found to have secretly pocketed £400,000 from lawyers responsible for MMR lawsuits. The British Medical Journal recently published an article showing that the 1998 study was an "elaborate fraud." Following the "precautionary principle" thimerosal was removed from most children's vaccines ten years ago. Although the average age of autism diagnosis is three there has been no observable drop in autism rates.
Despite the mounting evidence that the whole scare was either a hoax or a false alarm you can still go to the National Autism Association website and find material explaining that thimerosal causes autism, right next to the Donate button. The site claims that "studies conducted or funded by the CDC that purportedly dispute any correlation between autism and vaccine injury have been of poor design, under-powered, and fatally flawed." That is, scientists have been unable to prove a negative.
Social commentators loosely brandish the term "market failure" whenever economic outcomes displease them. What is it called when failed science, failed journalism, and failed justice team up to turn credulity into disaster?